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GEORGE TOLES "Sighs Too Deep for Words": Mysteries of Need in Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping For when all is said and done, we are in the end absolutely dependent on the universe; and into sacrifices and surrenders of some sort, deliberately looked at and accepted, we are drawn and pressed as into our only permanent position of repose. William James, Varieties of Religious Experience In chapter 8 of Marilynne Robinson's novel, Housekeeping, the young narratot Ruth accompanies her aunt Sylvie on a frigid, eatly morning journey by rowboat to a "secret" place in the valley. Theit destination is an abandoned homestead, which includes a "stunted orchard and lilacs and stone doorstep and fallen house, all white with a brine of frost" (Robinson 151). On her first viewing of the scene, Ruth complains of the cold and het hunget, and wondets "how anyone could have wanted to live here" (151). Sylvie makes it cleat by her example that they should wait quietly among some rocks along the shore fot several hours until conditions are right for a second approach. When they eventually return to the ruined dwelling, it is as if "the light had coaxed a flowering from the frost, which befóte seemed batten and patched as salt" (Robinson 152). As Ruth becomes entranced by this spectacle of beautiful desolation, Sylvie leaves without warning. At this moment of abandonment (in a text filled with images and thoughts of desertion), the reader is presented with what is perhaps Ruth's most enigmatic and demanding meditation on human needs: Arizona Quarterly Volume 47 Number 4, Winter 1991 Copyright © 1991 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1 610 138George Toles Imagine a Caithage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone and the seeds lain howevet long in the eatth, till thete rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in piisms, and to fruit heavily with blight globes of watei—peaches and giapes ate little mote than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can blossom into all the compensations it requires. To crave and to have ate as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors ofripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so uttetly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the woild will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one's head is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fostets us, smooths out hail, and brings us wild strawberries. (152-53) Sometimes the passage in a wotk which strains most unyieldingly against out knowledge ot expetience of the wotld is nothing less than the core mysteiy of the wtitei's imagination stiuggling to make itself felt. It is a second coming, as it were, ofthe original summons to create, which the narrative as a whole dreams of encompassing. Ruth speaks here of answeis to need, 01 rathei proposes that need is a sufficient answet unto itself, not depending for its fulfillment on natural and human actualities. I cannot talk myself out of believing that Robinson hetself supports Ruth's calmly exttavagant claims in the quoted passage at every point. Nothing else that the natiative reveals to us requires us to draw back from the extremity of Ruth's declarations. Ptivation 01 lack ultimately does accommodate those in the wotld of Housekeeping who put theit faith in it. An emptiness that floweis into fullness is response to longing is the central metaphot of Robinson's fiction. This metaphor must find ways to engage us at the level of lived expetience if the novel's redemption of need is not to seem purely fanciful. Ruth's fantasy demands a firm ground to stand on, one which...


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